Imagine sitting in the cool office of a polite yet impassive human resources manager. Your suit is heavy, your throat feels as if you’ve been singing soprano all morning, and your smile is beginning to falter under the weight of its constant enthusiasm. The manager looks up from studying your resume—the twelfth he’s seen that day. You subtly wipe your palms against your pant leg and steel your nerve. You’ve prepared for this moment. You’re ready for anything he can throw at you. The manager tosses you a lowball—“Tell me about yourself.”
And your mind goes completely blank.
If you’re feeling hard on yourself for cracking during a job interview, keep in mind that it may be a sign you have a high working memory capacity. Working memory, which gives you the ability to hold and retrieve information during a long task, is operating on overdrive during an interview. You need to remember information about the company and the person interviewing you, to retrieve the tiny details of your work history, and to juggle the information in a way that paints the best picture of you as a potential employee.
In short, stressful events can overwhelm the working memory. During a high pressure situation, anxiety begins to use up energy that otherwise would be used to recall information. Those invading thoughts about how you are performing take up a portion of your working memory capacity, causing people with high capacities to perform worse than they would under easier circumstances. The pressure doesn’t make people with low working memory capacities perform any worse than they normally would, because they never had the capacity to use in the first place.
From here on out, you can wear your embarrassing interview stories as a badge of pride. You’re not bad at job interviews; you just have a high working memory capacity! You should bring that up to the hiring manager the next time you flub an interview question.
(To learn more about working memory, click on this previous post.)